Approaching the Qur’an, The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, The White Cloud Press, 1999


A friend, Samuel Baron of the History Department at the University of North Carolina (UNC), sent me some clippings about this book because of the controversy it stirred up in Chapel Hill at UNC.  The University had asked incoming students to read this book during the summer of 2002 in preparation for seminars to be held during the first week before regular classes began.  I was particularly interested because of the two years teaching medicine in Afghanistan, a 98% Moselm country, and because Michael Sells is on the faculty of my alma mater, Haverford College.  Some excerpts from a New York Times editorial of August 28, 2002, follow.  The title “Cuckoo in Carolina” by Thomas L. Friedman:


   …..The notion the the UNC violated constitutional prohibitions against state-sponsored religion—by  asking freshman to simply read a book (Approaching the Qur’an) has been rightfully dismissed by the courts as nonsense.


 ….One is reminded of Harry Lime’s famous quip in the movie “The Third Man”—that 30 years of noisy violent churning under the Borgias in Italy produced Miichelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and  the Renaissance, while 500 years of peace, quiet and harmony in Switzerland produced the cuckoo clock.


….. “A monolithic framework does not create a critical mind,” remarked the religious philosopher, David.Hartman.  “Where there is only one self evident truth, nothing ever gets challenged and no sparks of creativity ever get generated.  The strength of America has always been its ability to challenge its own truths by presenting alternative possibilities that forces you to justify your own ideas, and the competition of ideas is what creates excellence.”


…. America will always be a strong model for how a nation thrives in the modern age, as long as our  culture of curiosity, free inquiry, and openness endures….


Two years in Afghanistan taught me some respect for Islam.  For example:  The Qur’an (Koran to us old timers) contains the stories of the Jewish Old Testament including God deterring Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.  The major celebration after Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, culminates in the ritual sacrifice of a sheep by all Muslims who can afford it.  Later when Jacob steals Esau’s birthright the story remains except that Esau is the hero (and patriarch of Islam) because he forgave his brother for the great wrong, so the Islamic variant is more “Christian” than original Jewish story.


As a result of my two year experience of Islam, I was amazed that they solved the problem of what to tell adopted children before it could become a problem.  They simply answer all questions forthrightly when asked.  Now some contributions to my thinking by Michael Sells’ book:


The introduction to the book describes a history of tribal warfare and economic greed in Arabian culture long  preceding Islam.  In partial compensation for this the Bedouins in Arabia had a tradition of the tribes coming together annually for religious observance, trade, and poetry contests.  These events were even called the hajj, or pilgrimage, for hundreds of years before Muhammad.  Compare with Christians adopting previous pagan rituals such as Christmas trees and spring fertility rites.  Although quite easy to accept when pointed out, such adoption of previous practices by new traditions is probably universal in human history, a useful insight for incoming freshmen at Chapel Hill.  Undoubtedly, some of these insights rubbed off during bull sessions on those students who were excused from the controversial seminars.  (They did have to write essays about why they did not attend.)


Additionally, Michael Sells has translated portions of the Qur’an with emphasis on the early revelations (actually mostly recorded late in the Qur’an text).  Such translations were forbidden until rather modern times because Islam contended that the true meaning is only available in the original sonorous and rhythmic  Arabic.  Michael Sells’ commentaries and translations go a long way toward overcoming this.  However, I am not qualified personally to evaluate this point because I know scarcely any Arabic.  The author’s faculty position at Haverford, not to mention this book’s selection for the entire freshman class of the UNC, is adequate confirmation.  His book comes with a CD of Arabic recitations of the translated passages as a best effort to inform a non-Arabic speaker on these points.  My response to studying this book is gratitude to Michael Sells for making the Qur’an somewhat available to me as a non-Muslim and non-Arabic speaker. Here is an example of excerpts from  sura 83, “the Cheats”


    In the Name of God the compassionate the Caring

    Cursed are the cheats

    Who when their portion is measured among people take their full share

    who when they measure the share of others, are frauds           .

    Do they think they will not be raised again for a momentous day

    a day humankind will stand before the lord of all beings.


    But no. The book of the false hearted is in Sijjin         (from Sells’ commentary; ‘Probably mysterious to the          

    What can tell you of Sijjin?                                                            original audience”….”a Roman feast”)

    A book inscribed

    Cursed are those who call it all a lie             

    who deny the day of reckoning

    Who would deny it but the oppressor hard in wrong?

    When our signs are recited to him, he says fables of the ancients


    But no. Rather. Rust on their hearts is what they acquire.

    When they returned to their people they returned mocking

    and when they saw them they said              

                those people have gone astray

     and they were not appointed their keepers.


     But on that day those who kept the faith at those who denied it will laugh        

     On couches, gazing.

     Were the deniers rewarded for what they achieved?


Now an excerpt of Michael Sells’ commentary:

    “The end of the Sura shows the beginning of the bitterness between the young Muslim community—at first mocked and humiliated, then persecuted –and those in Mecca who rejected the messenger Muhammad and laughed at his message.  As with many of the gospel parables of Jesus, the rejection of the message is met not with a command to fight back but with the warning that, in the final moment, it will be the mockers who will be mocked and the persecutors who will feel the pain.”


My overwhelming reaction to Michael Sells’ book is that it was an excellent choice for a mini-college course both as to pertinence for our time and competence in accomplishing its purpose. And the rest of us seeking authoritative information and interpretations about Islam will find this book an excellent resource.  Parenthetically, those opposing it as promoting religion should read it.  The Qur’an is frequently repetitive and stereotyped.  In plain English, those passages when translated read like a horoscope.


John A. Frantz

December 8, 2002